Sonoma County housing advocates worry Newsom’s new pandemic aid program won’t be enough

Gov. Gavin Newsom's plan to spend the state’s $75 billion budget surplus includes direct payments to millions of Californians, as well financial aid for tenants who've fallen behind on their rent during the pandemic.

But local housing and worker advocacy groups and landlords worry that money won't reach all of those still suffering through more than a year of economic hardship.

On Monday, Newsom proposed using $2.6 billion of the state’s budget windfall to help low-income tenants pay back 100% of outstanding rent. He also wants to set aside $12 billion for $600 stimulus checks to those making up to $75,000 a year and additional $500 payments to families with children and undocumented immigrants ― plus $2 billion for residents with unpaid utility bills. That’s on top of billions of dollars more for various programs addressing homelessness, wildfire prevention and other pressing issues.

Although housing and worker advocates commended the plan — the state Legislature would have to approve it by an effective deadline of June 15 — as a positive step, they said the money that will be available locally likely won’t be enough to address the full scope of the financial pain still felt by many Sonoma County residents. They also raised concerns about the difficulty many tenants already are facing in applying for rental assistance.

“It’s a good thing that there’s money going directly to people, but the amount we’re talking about here is just not even close to what people need,” said Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice.

Even as the North Bay economy recovers and enhanced unemployment benefits remain available, Alper said many low-income workers, particularly those of color, are continuing to shoulder the effects of pandemic job losses. Some are struggling to pay off debt they incurred to cover expenses and monthly rent. Others haven’t been able to return to hospitality jobs since many hotels have changed hands or have yet to return to full operations.

Nichole Bankson, 43, of Santa Rosa was able to keep her job through the worst of the pandemic working the front desk at the Mary Issak Center homeless shelter in Petaluma. But having pulled herself out of homelessness not long before the coranavirus upended life last spring, she appreciates the $600 payments amid the ongoing economic uncertainty.

“Any money is good money, especially in California,” said Bankson, who rents a friend’s in-law unit. “It’s incredibly expensive to live here.”

Statewide, tenants owe nearly $4 billion in back rent, according to National Equity Atlas, a research group backed by the University of Southern California. The governor’s proposed $2.6 billion in rental aid, plus the $2.6 billion in tenant assistance the state previously made available, brings the total relief to $5.2 billion, enough to cover that estimate.

In Sonoma County, meanwhile, some 10,240 households owe $51 million in debt, according to researchers. Already, the county is in the process of distributing $32 million in existing federal and state dollars. It hasn’t been decided how much of the additional proposed state aid the county would receive.

Even if there’s likely to be enough rental assistance available, local tenant advocates fear it won’t be distributed in time before the state’s eviction moratorium lapses on June 30. By that date, tenants who have taken a financial hit during the pandemic must pay at least 25% of their overdue rent accumulated since September 1, 2020, to remain protected from eviction for the unpaid rent.

“What were coming up against is this eviction cliff,” said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director for Legal Aid of Sonoma County. “The concern is this additional rental assistance be paired with an extension of the eviction moratorium.”

A separate county moratorium will keep most renters in their homes until 60 days after county officials declare the ongoing public health emergency over. But that ordinance doesn’t provide the same continued eviction protections for past rent debt afforded by the state moratorium.

Rubinoff said the money that’s already available is slow to get in the hands of renters. The county’s online application process can be difficult to navigate for some residents, advocates said, and the 10 local nonprofit groups tasked with distributing the money may be overwhelmed with requests.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, one of the lawmakers who must approve the governor’s surplus spending plan, said he supports negotiating another extension on the eviction moratorium, pointing to the ongoing struggle of essential workers in his district.

“Tens of thousands of North Bay residents continue to suffer based on the massive hit that the hospitality and tourism industries have faced,” McGuire said.

Another concern for advocates is that to receive full benefits under the current pandemic rental assistance program, financial aid must be sent directly to landlords, who can decline to accept the money, leaving tenants on the hook for most overdue rent and potentially at risk of eviction once the moratoriums are lifted. Participating landlords can be compensated for 80% of rental debt stretching back to April 1, 2020. The landlord must forgive the remaining 20%, however, under the terms of a deal brokered by the Legislature earlier this year.

McGuire said lawmakers have begun discussing how and to whom to distribute the additional rental assistance from the state budget surplus, but that “there will need to be a two-party agreement between landlord and tenants” when accepting aid.

Keith Becker, general manager of DeDe’s Rentals in Santa Rosa, said just one of his 14 tenants who have requested rental assistance have so far been approved for aid. He’s frustrated with the county’s online application portal, which tenants started using April 19 to apply for aid. He described the system as largely inefficient and lacking transparency.

In addition, he’s worried about income requirements for rental assistance, which cap eligibility for tenants at no more than 80% of an area’s median income. In Sonoma County, that’s $63,650 for an individual and $90,900 for a family of four.

“The qualifications of this could be a struggle, because there could be people seriously impacted by COVID but are not at the 80%,” Becker said. “They will slip through the cracks.”

Reach for Home, a north county housing and homelessness nonprofit, is now processing 31 rental aid requests and has had seven applications approved, totaling $70,000.

Executive Director Margaret Sluyk said the county’s application system has been running fairly smoothly for her group, but acknowledged that other larger nonprofits may be fielding many more financial assistance requests.

“For us, so far it’s been busy but it’s been manageable,” Sluyk said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misidentified the amount of funding proposed for rental aid in the upcoming budget.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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